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Penn College President Gilmour reflects on her career in education

Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour reflects on her long career at the Pennsylvania College of Technology during a recent interview May 17, 2022. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

When you speak with Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour, president of The Pennsylvania College of Technology, one word is peppered throughout the conversation — students.

Her time at Penn College has been about the students — working to offer a broad range of programs from certificates all the way to new master’s degrees; seeing that they have access to the latest technologies; and in the last few years working with her team of administrators to make sure students and staff stay healthy and safe and able to continue learning in-person in the midst of a pandemic.

Gilmour is finishing up her career at the college next month after being associated with the institution for almost 45 years.

For Gilmour, the dedication to learning was instilled at an early age. Her mother was a teacher, her father a welder and a member of the school board, but most importantly they saw learning and being involved as a priority.

“We were just committed, we were, for as long as I can remember,” Gilmour said of her family growing up.

“I love dental hygiene, but I wanted to teach it. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.

Coming to Penn College as an instructor in the dental hygiene program, Gilmour said that one of the most rewarding parts of her career was “seeing the transformation of students.”

“When I taught, you know, watching a dental hygiene student pick up an instrument for the first time and being terrified … now one of my students is my dental hygienist. When you think about it, that’s a transformation,” she said.

She first applied at Penn College in March of 1977, but it was not until September of that year that she heard from the college asking her to come in for an interview. During those months, Gilmour’s sister had married and moved to England and she had gone to visit her. When her parents called and told her that the college was trying to set up an interview, Gilmour said that she was not coming home early for an interview since it had taken so long for the college to act on her application.

“So, I came home and I went for the interview. I said, ‘Dad, there’s more deer than people. There’s no mall, banks close on Wednesday. Why would I want to go live in Williamsport?'” she said.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘This is an incredible opportunity. So, stay five years and if you don’t like it, leave.’ I was just about ready to start a graduate program in Harrisburg. I thought, alright, I’ll go. The rest is history. I wish he were here today to see it,” she added.

With only one-third of college presidents today being women, Gilmour offers the following advice to young women aspiring to hold those positions:

“What I tell young women today is, you’re hired for a job and you’re going to do that job. You should volunteer for everything you can volunteer for. You should dress for the next job. You should aspire to the next job,” she said.

“You want someone to say, wow, look at the energy she has. Look at this. This is her job X, but look what she can do now. You have to position yourself and you have to advocate for yourself and you have to learn and be willing to give more. If you’re going to work 8 to 4:30, you’re going to stay in an 8 to 4:30 job. If you’re going to give more, you’re going to learn more and you’re going to volunteer more,” she said. “I learned all I could learn about all aspects of this place.”

Gilmour believes this philosophy applies to both men and women.

“A long time ago, I gave a speech that I don’t believe in the glass ceiling. I think it’s sometimes self-imposed,” she said.

“I do recognize that there are environments where women are subjected to harassment. Then, get out of that environment. Find a new place where you can thrive. We are only limited by the obstacles in our own perception,” she stressed.

The Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce has a program, the Emerson Project, that Gilmour has been involved with. Part of the program is designed to improve the connection between the schools and the business community.

“I’d love to start a mentoring group for younger women and young professionals. There’s just so much that could be done,” Gilmour said.

Gilmour cited putting students first as one her greatest accomplishments as president.

“Putting students first … making decisions with the student in the front of our minds … I don’t think it was always like that before. Students are the most important thing we do,” she said.

Gilmour shared an example from early on in her career.

“I was very young, very new as president and this young man came and told me that he had to withdraw from school because he had a child in private daycare and there was an incident there where the child was injured and he didn’t feel it was safe, so he had to leave,” she said.

“And I asked him why he wasn’t in our daycare. He said, ‘I can’t afford it.'”

“I didn’t realize then as president that we didn’t have a sliding scale for students based on the ability to pay,” Gilmour continued. “Within a week, we had a sliding scale for students. Somebody will say that’s really little, but that saved a lot of students. Putting students first in the process is really, really important,” she stressed.

Looking back over her career, Gilmour said that the COVID pandemic stands out as her greatest challenge.

“I’ve never felt so helpless. I’ve always been able to solve the problem one way or the other. COVID made me feel helpless,” she shared.

“Being ordered to close and then all we did was work hard to figure out how to petition the governor on how we can open, because we’re not like other colleges. I can’t teach you how to fix an airplane online. We can’t teach you how to weld online. I can supplement, but we have to do other things,” she said.

She spoke of the heroics of her staff during that time — such as a faculty member who drove kits to his students so they could practice in their homes what he was doing in their video lessons.

“We were closed the minimum (amount of time) of any college in the country. And then we offered it for free for people to come back. So you came back. You came to intensive summer sessions or intensive sessions and it was free, because we had no choice,” Gilmour said.

“Those students are all graduating now. They’re doing fine. They’re getting jobs and they’re doing great,” she added.

With the pandemic came the need to isolate students during periods of quarantine. Gilmour shared how a staff member wrote notes on the to-go food containers given to students in isolation.

“The kids said how much that meant, because one student had to stay here for Thanksgiving and couldn’t go home … he reports that a dining services worker made his holiday. That’s what it’s all about,” Gilmour said.

Gilmour, who will be 68 in June, said she originally had wanted to retire when she was 65, but when COVID happened, she knew that was not the time to leave the college. After discussions with her husband, Fred, who is already retired, she decided the time was now.

“I want to clean out closets. I know that sounds silly, but there are things that I absolutely never get to do. I never get to sit down and read a fun book because I feel guilty if I’m not doing the pile on my desk,” she said.

“I want to do some traveling. I don’t want to go around the world, but I’d love to just do a little bit of traveling and not have a 5:30 in the morning wake-up call,” she said.

On a serious note, Gilmour is quick to remind everyone that “the most important thing to talk about…is that I’m not the institution. The institution is a conglomerate of amazingly wonderful people.”

Of the transition of leadership to her successor, Dr. Mike Reid, Gilmour said,“It will be different. People aren’t going to do things the way I did it and that’s probably good. It’s time for people to do things differently.”

“But, the institution — the values, the mission — is not changing when leaders change. People need to understand that the core values of this place aren’t going to change. Mike should and will put his own imprint on it and he will have my 100% support for that,” she said.

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